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State Authority, Indigenous Autonomy: Crown-Maori Relations in New Zealand/Aotearoa 1900-1950

The Urewera experiment

The Urewera experiment

The settler state could not have contemplated any kind of parallel power at national level. But had it been serious about addressing at least some Maori aspirations at a regional level it could have done so under the 1852 legislation. This enabled some form of regional or tribal self-government in areas that remained remote from pakeha settlement. The Crown's concessions to a Maori autonomy movement independent of the unity organisation were greatest for the isolated Urewera people, whose attempts to preserve their independence were long-standing and determined. At a Tuhoe tribal gathering in 1894, Chief Numia Kereru confirmed to Premier R J Seddon that his tribe did not want the 'temporary prosperity' that came with the selling of land that was inevitable after the individualising of tenure. Instead, it wanted to continue to manage its tribal land and political affairs collectively through its own structures. In gauging how genuine the Crown's concessions were, the Premier's reply is instructive. It repeated the long-standing state policy on autonomy: if Tuhoe was asking that tribal committees page 40could have law-making powers, they could not.

But regular police and military expeditions to the Urewera to deter ongoing tribal disruption to surveys were too expensive for an area that could produce no short-term economic gains. And so the imposition of substantive sovereignty needed to be suspended. This created a problem for Crown-defined 'order and regularity' in arugged area where, within living memory, the 'infamous rebel chief' Te Kooti Arikirangi had operated. State-iwi negotiations resulted in 1895 in a modus vivendi that partially reflected ideas generated by an earlier commission. Local land block committees with specified powers would be established, and would elect an umbrella organisation, the Komiti Nui o Tuhoe/General Committee, to handle region-wide matters. The Crown agreed that the government would survey only with the concurrence of the tribes and the Native Land Court would be excluded from the region. Instead, seven 'Commissioners' (five of them tribespeople) would deal with land ownership matters under customary law and certificates of ownership, and the general committee alone would be able to alienate land (and then only to the Crown).

The resulting Urewera District Native Reserve Act of 1896, establishing some 650,000 acres of the Urewera as areserve under Maori 'local government', seemed to be a significant precedent for the concession of rangatiratanga. But, as noted by the leading politician of mixed-race descent, James Carroll, this development could occur only because no significant state or settler interests were involved at that time. In return, moreover, the government gained Tuhoe's recognition of the mana of the British Queen and all tribal powers under the Act were devolved and constrained by the Crown. The state intended that in due course it would impose on the Urewera all the 'responsibilities and liabilities' of the other citizens of New Zealand. As the parliamentary opposition noted, the legislation was designed to be the thin end of the wedge for settlement and exploitation of timber and other resources, and for the 'civilising' of Maori that would follow. From the very point when Tuhoe consented to have their lands surveyed as part of the agreement, the tribe began to lose its authority vis a vis the Crown.33